Europe set to slap Turkey for Erdoğan’s ‘anti-diplomacy’

Turkey’s increasingly aggressive and anti-diplomatic posture in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean has put Ankara on a collision course with a growing list of supposed allies, not just Greece and Cyprus but also Italy, France, and the European Union. 

In November, Turkey signed an agreement with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) that ignored Greek islands, including Crete, as well as international maritime law. The United States described the deal as “provocative”. 

Weeks later, the Turkish parliament approved a military intervention in Libya, escalating that country’s civil war just as it appeared to be nearing its end. Then, two days before a host of Western and Arab states gathered in Berlin seeking a permanent ceasefire and political solution to the Libyan war, Ankara dispatched a fourth drilling ship to waters claimed by Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan departed Berlin without attending the official dinner. The next day, after Berlin attendees committed to enforce the U.N. arms embargo and refrain from actions that would exacerbate the conflict, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Turkey planned to send 6,000 Syrian rebels to fight for the GNA in Libya. 

This did not stop Erdoğan from blaming General Khalifa Haftar, who seeks to take Tripoli from the GNA, for the trouble in Libya. “Haftar should stop his aggressive stance,” he said while flying back from Berlin. “Haftar's has been the side which violated all deals and attacked the legitimate government.”

Faruk Loğoğlu, Turkey’s former ambassador to the United States, said Erdoğan had lost an opportunity by skipping the dinner.  “He should have attended and defended the interests of the country,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “Ankara has a lot of hard work and difficult stock-taking to do in the wake of the Berlin conference.”

Being diplomatic at an official dinner may not have been in line with Turkish policy towards Europe of late, which Alexander Clarkson, lecturer on German and European Studies at King’s College London, described as a form of anti-diplomacy.

“It seems to be Erdoğan’s mission to burn every possible diplomatic off-ramp toward some compromise solution,” Clarkson told Ahval in a podcast, adding that this approach may be an extension of the Turkish president’s domestic political use of fear. 

“That doesn’t work internationally,” he said. “He can use fear in Turkey because he shapes the Turkish political space. He doesn’t shape the EU political space.”

That space has become increasingly uncomfortable for Turkey. Greece views the Turkey-Libya maritime borders memorandum of understanding (MoU) as a violation of international law and an attack on its sovereignty. 

“The aggressive and belligerent rhetoric from Ankara has now reached a higher level,” Turkish analyst Cengiz Aktar told Ahval in a podcast about the MoU. 

As a result, Greece has emerged as a key supporter of Haftar, and Athens and Nicosia have notified their European partners that they intend to block any political resolution in Libya that fails to nullify the maritime deal. 

Germany and France have faced several crises with Turkey in recent years, which involved name-calling, refugee threats and charges of spying. Last month, Germany expressed solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, while France is unhappy about Turkish plans to drill in waters off Cyprus meant for French energy giant Total. 

Now Ankara may be losing perhaps its staunchest European ally, Italy, which has also been backing the GNA. 

“One of Turkey’s best friends in the EU is also getting fed up,” said Clarkson, pointing to Italian frustrations with Turkey’s growing influence in Tripoli and with Turkish claims on waters Cyprus has contractually handed to Italian energy firm Eni. Italy now finds itself in the difficult position of opposing Turkey’s maritime deal with a government it still supports. 

“The Italians share Cypriot and Greek interests in the eastern Mediterranean,” Clarkson said. “They’re all on the same team there. That’s what makes EU collective efforts there a little bit more assertive, and a little bit clearer.”

Cyprus says Turkey is becoming a pirate state, while the EU is readying new sanctions against Turkish businesses and individuals responsible for the latest drilling off Cyprus. 

Despite the rising tensions, the EU is keen to avoid escalation, according to Clarkson, and Turkish and Greek officials have quietly begun back-channel negotiations. But as he wrote for Ahval on Sunday, Greek analyst Yannis Koutsomitis believes the talks will again fail because Turkey contends that Greek islands do not represent Greek sovereign borders.

“They (the Greeks) are talking about a continental shelf around Crete,” Erdoğan said on Monday. “There is no continental shelf around the islands, there is not even such a thing.”

At this point, Athens sees a respected international court as its best, if not its only option, to bring the two sides together. 

“Greece’s position is basically to have this solved in an international tribunal,” Koutsimitis told Ahval in a podcast, referring to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. “This is the main aim of Greece right now, to make this dispute an international affair.” 

Yet due to Turkey’s aggressiveness, any serious negotiations or adjudication seem far beyond the horizon. 

“It shouldn’t be impossible to find a compromise option that at least pushes this back into law courts instead of confrontations on the high seas,” said Clarkson. “But a lot of this is dependent on what Ankara does ... It’s been mostly inflammatory. It’s not been balanced by a kind of outreach that could get this issue out of a process of escalation.”

Europe is fast losing patience with Erdoğan’s scare tactics, Clarkson said, and Turkey is at a severe disadvantage to Greece when it comes to the EU, as it is not a member state. 

“The Greeks can sit there and block everything Turkey needs from the EU and slow down processes and make sure things get more and more uncomfortable,” said Clarkson. “The MoU looks great; it looks like Turkey’s being forceful. But I struggle to see how this doesn’t land Turkey in a hole the next time it needs help from the Europeans.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.